Self-help or scam?

Local Amish leaders have banned controversial seminars that touch on everything from business to sex. They claim the courses are costly and generate cult-like behavior. "Graduates" here defend the programs as instructive and inspiring.

Lancaster New Era/October 13, 2005
By Daniel Burke

Lancaster County, PA - They were pitched to Amish men and women as business seminars.

For $4,975, the McGrane Institute would reveal methods to "expand their bottom line" and create an "environment for exquisite and irresistible outcomes."

Before long, however, the subject and tone of the seminars dramatically changed.

Bill and Linda McGrane were no longer talking dollars and cents — now they were lecturing about sexuality and a "healing code."

After taking their courses, some Amish men and women praised the McGranes with an almost evangelistic zeal. They spoke to neighbors and friends, wrote letters to bishops and signed up for every course offered. Within Lancaster County's Old Order Amish community, they became known as "McGrane People."

But not everyone was captivated by the McGranes.

During the nearly seven months the McGranes taught here, Amish bishops grew increasingly concerned that the Kentucky-based consultants over-emphasized individual achievements, taught far afield of their Bible-based values and charged a hefty price for the honor. They feared young men and women would leave the Amish community under the McGranes' influence.

In July, the Old Order Amish bishops banned their church members from attending any more McGrane Institute lectures.

"We thought it was a hoax," said a member of the Plain community from White Horse.

Even now, however, the McGranes continue to kick up clouds of controversy. A "sexual abuse" survey and letter they sent to "graduates" of their programs has angered Amish leaders and county mental health professionals.

Meanwhile, the McGranes have left behind phone numbers for "coaching sessions," and some students still lobby leaders to reconsider the ban.

"It's getting close to being a cult," said a member of the Plain community from Gordonville.

Bill McGrane III says his late father, William McGrane Jr., started the McGrane Institute 45 years ago.

The self-help/consulting firm, now operated by Bill III and Linda, his wife, offers two- and five-day seminars called "Making It Happen," and "Managing the Human Machine."

The two-day seminars cost $795 per participant; the five-day seminars, $4,975 per participant.

It is difficult to ascertain exactly what is taught in the seminars, since participants are asked to keep the proceedings confidential.

But the McGranes broadly advertise "350 success strategies" and "over 3,000 tools and concepts in diverse bodies of knowledge."

Those "tools" seem to be pieces plucked from fields as diverse as ancient Sufi Muslim mythology and modern corporate culture.

The McGranes offer, for example, "The Enneagram Profile" as a way to "identify personality skills."

Now popular as a way to analyze character, enneagrams are systems of spiritual psychology based on Sufi Muslim studies of personality types.

Bill McGrane insists that all of his lessons are compatible with Amish values. He asserts that the institute is, in fact, a "service arm to the church," according to a document titled "Answers to the Most Frequently Asked Questions About the McGrane Institute Programs." It is distributed by the Kentucky consultants.

But Bill McGrane also spoke of the importance of removing "rules that no longer work," and said his teachings erase "values judging."

"We are filling a need that gets to the core of people, showing them tools that people have not been exposed to before," he said in a telephone interview.

Some of those tools are essential to life in the 21st century, said one graduate of the course, a member of the Plain community from Gap.

"I'm not saying the Amish need higher education. It's just that nowadays it takes a little extra to run a business, and it takes a little bit more to run a family," said the Amish man.

He asked not to be named because of the controversy surrounding the McGrane Institute.

During two 12-hour seminars, the Amish man learned "how to be present in the moment" and "just a lot of knowledge about myself as far as how I handle people."

After attending a two-day McGrane seminar in Kentucky, the man said managing his 18 employees became a much easier task.

"I went into business in the 8th grade. Nine years later I attended a business course and I started understanding there is more to business than I thought," the man said.

The McGranes never mentioned sexuality or "healing codes" during the seminars, the Amish man said.

"Each person can talk about what they want to talk about. It goes where the students take it," he said.

Although the man from Gap supports the bishops' ban, he said the worry surrounding the McGrane Institute is unfounded.

"It's one big misunderstanding," he said.

Whether misunderstood or not, the McGranes became a major topic of conversation in Amish circles.

"Still much talk about these Robert McCrain [sic] sessions," wrote a man in the Aug. 22 edition of 'Die Botschaft,' an Old Order Amish weekly newspaper.

"One concern is the cost, over $4,000 for a session for 1 person. Tis said the operator took in over a million dollars," the writer continued.

Bill McGrane would not say how much money his institute has made in Lancaster County. But both he and Amish leaders have said approximately 300 Plain people have taken the courses. At $795 to $5,000 per person, the Amish writer's estimate is not unreasonable.

The high cost is offset by the length of the sessions, which often run for more than 12 hours, and the year-long "coaching relationship" graduates are entitled to, Bill McGrane said.

Moreover, McGrane materials insist that "ministers and deacons...have tested the fruit of the program with great satisfaction."

But the program's fruits here have yet to be reaped, and what they have seen from the McGranes lately is not promising, several Amish leaders assert.

A "sexual abuse" survey the McGranes sent to their Amish customers asks detailed questions about sexual behavior. It also requests the names, addresses and telephone numbers of "bishops and ministers open to McGrane ideas."

An organization called "Break That Chain" sent the survey, according to a copy obtained by the New Era.

That group has the same Kentucky address as the McGrane Institute.

Bill McGrane said he is executive director of Break That Chain and that the organization has no additional staff.

The Kentucky consultant said he sent the survey because he wanted to "eliminate unhealthy behavior going on in Lancaster County and the Amish community."

But the six-page survey is less concerned with eliminating unhealthy behavior than profiting from it, said several Lancaster County professionals.

It tosses together questions such as "Are you glad you attended the McGrane Institute course?" and "Have you been sexually abused?"

"The survey is outrageous," said Mary Steffy, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Lancaster County.

Such queries as "Are you currently masturbating?" and "Have you ever had sex with farm animals?" demonstrate a misunderstanding of sexual abuse, Steffy said.

"These are just the most inappropriate questions," she said. "It feels abusive to me."

Pauline Zimmerman, a registered nurse and certified family therapist who has treated members of the Plain community for sexual abuse and depression, said abuse should only be discussed in a therapeutic context. Usually, that context is a one-on-one session, Zimmerman said.

And the question "are you glad you attended a McGrane Institute course?" has no place in a survey that purports to be about sexual abuse, she said.

"It seems to promote the exploitation of those who may have already been victimized. I just can't believe this survey," Zimmerman said.

Moreover, the letter sent with the survey misrepresents a meeting between Amish bishops and the McGranes, according to leaders in the Plain community with knowledge of the proceedings.

When rumors spread this summer that the McGranes had compiled a list of 40 people potentially in sexually abusive relationships, bishops asked the Kentucky couple to meet with them.

"The purpose of the meeting was for the bishops to listen to our concerns about the sexual abuse happening in the Amish community," the McGranes wrote in a July 21 letter to their customers.

In fact, the bishops called the meeting to find out who the alleged abusers were, said a member of the Plain community with intimate knowledge of the meeting.

Bill McGrane and his wife had no such list, according to Amish bishops. The bishops suspect the survey, which asks for the names, addresses and telephone numbers of abusers and victims, was an effort to accumulate one.

Even after the bishops asked the McGranes to stop teaching in their community, the Kentucky couple continued to advertise and hold seminars here.

The most recent was in July, at a bed-and-breakfast in Paradise Township, said Bill McGrane.

And the July 21 letter to their customers gives the phone numbers of three people "to call for phone, face to face, group calls or sessions."

One of the three is Margaret Hart, a psychiatric nurse who lives in Maryland and who holds a temporary license to provide mental health counseling in Pennsylvania.

A graduate of the McGrane Institute, Hart said she did not know her name and phone number were given to the McGranes' Amish customers.

"I don't think (Bill McGrane) discussed that with me," she said.

Hart met with Amish leaders here this summer and told them she works with "recovered memories" of abuse, a controversial field of psychiatry that asserts children can forget, and later recall, painful experiences. Amish leaders declined Hart's offer to work with local Amish community members.

Also listed on the letter is Linda S. Brewer, another former McGrane Institute customer, who now lectures on "Healing Codes" and sells "essential oils" in Spartanburg, S.C.

Brewer believes the oils help recapture "cellular memory" in the body.

"Each part of our body holds a different section of emotions. Anger is held in our stomach area," according to Brewer.

Between 15 and 20 Amish people from Lancaster County have called her for counseling, she said.

It can be dangerous for someone with serious mental or sexual issues to consult unlicensed therapists, said Brian McDonald, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees professional licensure.

It is comparable, he said, to a sick person visiting a doctor who doesn't have a medical degree.

"They may not have the appropriate background skills and training to assist you. Someone's who's not licensed can essentially do whatever they wish," he said.

Bill McGrane said the McGrane Institute is not providing psychiatric care.

"I'm not offering mental health; I'm offering life skills to help people," he said.

Amish leaders do not deny that some among them seem to have been helped by the McGranes.

But they are concerned about the seminars' long-term effects.

"We're not against the good that they got out of it. We are against what might happen," said one member of the Amish community from White Horse.

That observer added that people who have attended the seminars "might not respect leadership anymore, or their parents. It's possible that they can go out of there (the seminars) and want to get out into the world."

And Amish elders are puzzled about why a self-styled "authority on peak performance" like Bill McGrane appealed to so many members of their community.

"We go by the Bible and our common sense, and we use our money to help the poor," said one member of the Plain community.

With centuries of communal wisdom surrounding them and trusted counseling organizations like Philhaven Behavioral Healthcare Services nearby, some Amish leaders wonder why their young and middle-age members turned to an outsider for help.

Others think they know.

"It just seems that people, ever since there was man, they were grasping at hope," said a Plain community member from Gordonville.

"McGrane was able to paint a very hopeful picture."

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